The Book of Eli: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and the End of the World

I’ve watched an inordinate number of post-apocalyptic movies over the years. I have kind of a thing about it, actually. End-of-the-world scenarios frighten and fascinate me, to the point that I’m even willing to endure subliterate Roland Emmerich F/X reels like 2012. I’ve also read pretty much all the books in the post-apocalypse sci-fi canon, and get regularly hooked on video games with such settings – such as the sublime Fallout 3, which hijacked my life for several months.

The source of my fascination dates back to a specific childhood trauma, which readers of the Gex X persuasion will remember. In 1983, ABC broadcast a much-hyped television movie called The Day After, which takes place in the American Midwest and details the fallout (heh) of a nuclear exchange between US and the Soviet Union. Defying my parents specific instructions, I sneaked into the basement the night of that broadcast and watched the whole movie by myself. Bad move. I’ve been plagued ever since by nuclear nightmares and a general free-floating anxiety concerning the, you know, abrupt and violent end of civilization.

Anyhoo, all of this is by way of introduction to the superior sci-fi specimen The Book of Eli. The Book of Eli is a standard post-apocalypse action film in many ways – you’ve got your desiccated wastelands, your nascent communities, your maniacal despots, your lone wanderers. However, directors Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell) have a clever script to work with, a compelling visual strategy, and a commanding performance by Denzel Washington, whose trademarked Decency and Resolve are essentially portable to any genre.

The gist: Washington plays Eli, a decidedly badass loner who, 30 years after an unspecified apocalyptic event, fights his way across the continent to deliver a book that just might resurrect humanity. Eli eventually crosses paths with the tyrant Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a budding Mussolini who oversees the standard-issue ramshackle watering hole. Eli escapes with a new companion, the pretty and oddly fashionable young Solara (Mila Kunis), and the chase is afoot.

Carnegie and his goons pursue our heroes in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has seen an American action movie in the last 40 years. The Book of Eli plays it remarkably conservative in this regard – if you’re looking for a non-standard (and deeply disturbing) post-apocalypse narrative, go rent The Road instead.

The strength of the Hughes Brothers’ approach lies in their skill with cross-genre mashup strategies. Several passages play like classic spaghetti Westerns, many of the fight scenes are clearly informed by Hong Kong templates, and overall the film has the kinetic visual energy and surprising literacy of a superior graphic novel.

Eli even dips a toe into the gothic horror genre with a fun sequence concerning an adorable, albeit cannibalistic, retiree couple. Meanwhile, details are peppered in regarding the nature of the instigating cataclysm, and the film generally does a nice job of treating its audience like grown-ups who can handle ambiguity and the occasional detour into pop theology. (Credit writer Gary Whitta for much of this.)

Anchoring it all is the redoubtable Mr. Washington, who – as the Blu-ray extras disclose – did all of his own stunts and fights. One brilliant sequence features an extended single take, in silhouette, as Eli dismantles a band of marauders using his reliable machete. This is old-school fight choreography, fast disappearing in the current action cinema era of CGI and egregious over-editing. It’s a thrill to see this kind of exacting, taxing work on the part of the actors and filmmakers.

The movie has a Big Twist at the end, so avoid spoilers if you can. The switch-up, cleverly obscured throughout the movie, is revealed with skill and style – an increasingly hard trick to pull off anymore, as audiences have gotten a lot more wary in recent years.

The standard edition DVD package adds a couple of disposable deleted scenes and a “motion comic” feature that details the villain’s backstory. This is essentially a comic book storyboard treatment, with some limited film language applied, similar to the recent motion comic of The Watchmen.

Blu-ray adds a digital copy of the film, for porting to your mobile device, plus three relatively meaty production docs. You also get about 40-minutes of picture-in-picture commentary from Washington and the Hughes brothers, linked to critical scenes.

All in all, The Book of Eli is much more thoughtful and artful than it’s strictly required to be, and a worthy addition to the post-apocalyptic canon. To wit: After screening The Book of Eli on Blu-ray, I had the inevitable nuclear nightmare, though this time nicely leavened with the appearance of Mila Kunis!

RATING 8 / 10